Both in-house and external relationships require constant TLC

In-house team relationships afford easier, more frequent communication, but sometimes we forget that external agency relationships need proactive management too.

In-house team relationships
Relationships drive our business

Relationships are what drives and sustains the marketing ecosystem we live and work in. These relationships can be within a location, a company or a complex network. But getting things done in a talent-based business is always about relationships.

Comparing in-house relationships with external suppliers, the glaring difference is that outsourced relationships don’t have the benefit of an ever present, day-to-day relationship with you at the water cooler, café or even in the bar after work.

So, when the recent Marketing Week survey showed “46% of marketers have outsourced an element of their departments activity in the last 12 months to an agency, specialist or consultancy” – it raises the question, how best to maintain the immediacy of what was an in-house relationship?

The rise of in-house team relationships
in-house client-agency relationships compared with external agency relationships.
Source: Aprais 2024

The in-house versus external agency debate has gone on as long as the industry. Perhaps the first and most famous is Lintas, since morphed into MullenLowe Global. It’s history stretches back to 1899. The agency name was an acronym for a London soap maker called Lever Brothers (Unilever): Lever InterNaTional Advertising Services.

Aprais has been monitoring the rise of in-house agency relationships as far back as 2005 and will soon publish a report comparing in-house and external relationships.

As the chart opposite reveals, the evaluation scores given by an agency of their ‘client’ and client of the agency differ considerably for in-house team relationships and external agencies.

Time pressures

We are all time limited, and business is ever more demanding. So how do you make sure those outsourced resources are working well together with your in-house teams? Measurement is important, but a number, in isolation, as Douglas Adams proved in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide,’ is never going to be an end in itself.

It’s how you take the temperature of a relationship. How you improve it so there is a trust-based service relationship that wants to go the extra mile when you really need them to step up. Because if they don’t or can’t, finding that out when you do need their support is way too late and can be career limiting.

Given the trend to outsource and churn it is highly likely that the expertise to create, build and repair great relationships requires outside help. The cheapest solution will be a SaaS based model that leaves you with numbers but little depth of knowledge or expertise in identifying the real issues and offer solutions to fix them before they impact your business.

Everyone is facing greater pressures on valuable time meaning they just don’t have enough time in the day to invest in maintaining relationships. We all worry that too often the relationship takes a second place to the need to just  ‘get stuff done.’ This is especially true the more complex the relationships are – across different project teams, brand teams, locations  and different skill sets/ disciplines. And, lets never forget  the increased cost through outsourcing means there is a real pressure to increase performance to justify that investment.

Managing relationships

I believe that better relationships drive better performance. So they are a key aspect of your operation and cannot be measured by a simple spreadsheet or dashboard. It’s about regularly taking the temperature of a relationship, understanding the direction of travel and how it can be changed for the mutual benefit of both clients and their agencies. Even better, when you are at the beginning of a new relationship, you might be able with the right external help to  identify those awkward cultural habits that provide the ‘pebble in the boot’ of a relationship by year two.

Back in my agency leadership days a global client consistently and annoyingly asked for work outside the scope. Working through the issue with the client, the relationship management supplier discovered the real reason for the scope-creep was the client had never received a copy of the global contract!

It’s often the small simple missteps that grow into bigger challenges.

So for the 46% who have outsourced a part of their department, plus those who already do, don’t forget the new relationships require a bit of TLC and a part of that is mutually agreeing what you both need to better at. This is the right way to create, develop and even repair relationships, because these relationships, if viewed as partnerships are the key to you delivering quality outputs and performance consistency. To say nothing of the potential costs and disruption avoided by divorce and finding a new supplier.

Four tips for improving relationships with an outsourced supplier
  1. Cost is not the most important metric. A cheap spread sheet solution will never give you the depth of answer you need to create great partnerships that deliver.
  2. Never jeopardise mutual trust by working with a relationship management supplier with a hidden agenda. If they make their money by running agency searches and pitches, how invested will they be in  helping you improve your agency relationships?
  3. There are a lot of challenges across culture, skills, generations. Pick someone who has the data to help you understand and benefit from them.
  4. Ask your outsourced suppliers who they have had the best experiences with, ask your peers. Just don’t go through costly divorces, try and find the right partner the first time, and keep them.

Julian Ingram: Marketing services consultant and Aprais Associate.